The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain M. Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Continue reading “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin”

Ten Years, Ten Books

By Paul Kincaid.

What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.

Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.

Continue reading “Ten Years, Ten Books”

Vector #269

This issue of Vector is dedicated, in part, to revisiting the subject of women writers of science fiction. Few female UK-based science fiction authors currently have contracts, but worldwide, there’s a great deal going on, a geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity which Cheryl Morgan surveys in this issue. I came away from reading it with a massively expanded to-read list, and I hope it inspires you similarly. Tony Keen examines the roles of death and transformation in Justina Robson’s books Natural History (one of the books on last year’s list of the previous decades best science fiction by women) and Living Next Door to the God of Love. In contrast, Niall Harrison examines a very different author, Glasgow-based Julie Bertagna. Her post-apocalyptic trilogy, which begins with Exodus, provides an intriguing comparison with Stephen Baxter’s current series of prehistoric climate change novels which began with Stone Spring.

The second part of Victor Grech’s three-part series on gender in science fiction doesn’t focus on women science fiction authors, but does deal with quite a few of them in the process of discussing the variety of single-gendered world in science fiction. In particular, he examines the in-story reasons, the biological explanations for their existence, and the degrees to which those mechanisms are found in the ecologies of our own world.

Shana Worthen

Vector 269

What a welcome sight! The post just arrived, and with it, the latest BSFA mailing.  In addition to Vector, there’s an issue of Quantum, the BSFA’s occasional newsletter; and a paper copy of the ballot for the BSFA Awards (also available online).

There’s also a NewCon Press sampler which includes excerpts from The Outcast and the Little One by Andy West and Kim Lakin-Smith’s BSFA best novel-nominated Cyber Circus. Ian Whates assures me that the booklet went to press well before the BSFA Award nominations for best novel were known and announced.

Lest the prompt arrival of the paper copy of the ballot worry anyone, we’re still planning to do a short story booklet of stories nominated for the BSFA award for the best short story of 2011; but the logistics of that take just long enough that it’ll be coming in the mailing after this one.

This issue of Vector is partially a followup to the poll which Niall ran last year, on the best sf novels by women written in the previous decade. It also has Adam Roberts’ reflections on writing music entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and Andrew M Butler’s review of the three versions of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which recently closed at the Tate Britain. (The review was printed here on Torque Control in late December to make sure it would  be read before the show closed!)

Vector 269 is labeled the Spring 2012 issue, which means we seem to have skipped winter entirely, despite what today’s chilly weather seems to imply.

Vector 269 contains…

Women SF Writers: An Endangered Species? – Cheryl Morgan
Death and Transcendence in the “Forged” Novels of Justina Robson – Tony Keen
Telling the World: The Exodus Trilogy by Julie Bertagna – Niall Harrison
Single-Gendered Worlds In Science- Fiction – Better For Whom? – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo, and Ivan Callus
On Science Fiction Music – Adam Roberts
John Martin: Apocalypse – A Review – Andrew M Butler

Kincaid in Short – Paul Kincaid
Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites – Andy Sawyer
Picture This – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.

***

Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!

Vector 265

Saturday morning’s post brought with it Vector 265, at long last. Not just Vector: the mailing includes a booklet in memory of Rob Holstock, edited by Niall Harrison; the BSFA Awards booklet, with all of the shortlisted short stories; and a ballot for voting on the BSFA awards.

Vector 265 is the last one edited by Niall, and it’s a hefty one, a rich tribute to Stephen Baxter, plus book reviews, edited by Martin Lewis. For those of you not currently BSFA members, here is what you’re missing out on:

Table of Contents
“That Cosmological Feeling: An Interview with Stephen Baxter”
“Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle: No Coming Home”, Jonathan McCalmont
“The Settee and the Stars: Stephen Baxter and the Dilemma of Scale”, Gary K Wolfe
“An Atomic Theory of Baxter’s Fiction”, Adam Roberts
“Three Colours NASA: Reflections on Stephen Baxter’s ‘NASA’ trilogy”, Simon Bradshaw
“Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence”, Tony Keen
“Foundation’s Favourite: Stone Spring”, Andy Sawyer
“Baxter’s People”, Niall Harrison
“Giant Killer Rodents in Space Armour, With Guns: the other side of Stephen Baxter”, Graham Sleight

“First Impressions”, Martin Lewis
Book reviews edited by Martin Lewis
Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by
Justin Robson
Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Anthony Nanson
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) –
reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed
by Tony Keen

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by
Michael Abbott
The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Martin Potts
Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009)
– reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by
Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos
Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) –
reviewed by Shaun Green
Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010)
– reviewed by Graham Andrews
The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Stuart Carter
Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe
(Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by
Donna Scott
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed
by Anne F Wilson
The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by
Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by
Alan Fraser
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) –
reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed
by AP Canavan
Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Lynne Bispham

BSFA Awards Shortlist 2011

Anyone who joined the BSFA recently may end up with the wrong impression as to how frequently mailings occur, inasmuch as we expect the next one to be sent out within the next month-or-so. It’s all still quarterly, however.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.